The United States Returns to UNESCO!?

On June 8, a proposal from the U.S. State Department was hand-delivered to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Audrey Azoulay outlining steps to rejoin the organization.  On June 29, UNESCO Member states convened in Paris for an “extraordinary session” of the General Conference to consider the U.S. proposal. On July 25th, the U.S flag was hoisted up outside UNESCO’s headquarters to rousing applause. At the flag-raising, Dr. Jill Biden said that this move was an example of President Biden’s pledge about “restoring our leadership on the world stage.” While UNESCO Director-General Azoulay stated that, “In the time of divisions, rifts and existential threats, we reaffirm our union here today – Together we will be stronger.”

We could not agree more, though truthfully, if you asked us a several years ago, we would have doubted this day would come.  So, how did we get here?

For many decades, the U.S. was an active member in UNESCO, as the agency’s mandate covers a range of programs and initiatives related to promoting education, intercultural dialogue, cultural heritage, human rights, innovation, arts and sciences, and communication. But immediately following a vote of UNESCO’s General Conference in 2011 to admit Palestine as a full member, the U.S. was forced to stop funding the agency.  In October 2017, the Trump Administration announced that it was withdrawing from the organization altogether. As such, over those six years, UNESCO lost the equivalent of approximately $600 million in U.S. contributions.

While it looked bleak for a number of years, UNA-USA members helped keep the torch lit for UNESCO.  We reminded Congressional members of UNESCO’s legacy.  For example, in the 1950’s, UNESCO researchers and American civil rights leaders joined forces to catalyze the world’s first anti-racism campaign.  In more recent times, we discussed how UNESCO is working to ensure legal freedom of the press, responding to the education-related disruptions of COVID-19, promoting respect for human rights, countering violent extremism, and encouraging all member states to incorporate Holocaust education standards.  Of course, we talked about how the UN agency works to protect cultural heritage sites and that UNESCO’s World Heritage program is enormously beneficial to the U.S.   Going forward, we are highlighting UNESCO’s role in drafting rules and standards around artificial intelligence (AI) and that as it stands, China is now the agency’s largest financial contributor.  If we are concerned about China’s growing influence in areas like AI, then we need to be at the (global) table. 

Our arguments helped move the needle and now the U.S. is back in…but we cannot remain at the table if we don’t pay our membership dues to the agency.  As such, Congress needs to provide funding for our UNESCO dues this year and some of the back dues from prior years.  The Senate Appropriations Committee just put forward their proposal and they have the requisite UNESCO funding but alas, the House Appropriations Committee zeroed out any funding to the organization.  

Needless to say, it would be a major embarrassment for the U.S to raise the flag in July and then have to walk away in January.  So, we need all of you to tell your Member of Congress to please support UNESCO funding and oppose any prohibitions on payments.  By failing to put our full weight behind UNESCO, we allow countries that do not share our principles to fill the leadership vacuum. Alternatively, by funding the agency, we will show the world that the U.S. is serious about “restoring our leadership on the world stage” and “reaffirming our union” within the world’s largest cultural and scientific agency.


Ways to Take Action: 

Sign these petitions:

UNA-USA UNESCO Petition                 Better World Campaign UNESCO Petition   

Learn More:

Watch the UNA-USA Virtual Town Hall to gain an inside scoop from Jordie Hannum (Executive Director, Better World Campaign), Former U.S. Ambassador David Killion and Melinda Kimble (Senior Fellow, UN Foundation)

Learn More about BWC